I haven’t had a new category in a while. I can’t find enough excuses to highlight records I think are great but weren’t big hits in their time. I’m not sure if anything is truly “obscure” anymore, but I’ll pick things that didn’t make the Top Ten anyway. First up is the Spinners’ “We’ll Have It Made.”
A little background: the Spinners had hung around the scene for a decade by 1970. They had reached the Top 40 a couple of times, had a little success in R&B, without being quite quite able to break out.
Motown, their then-current label, teamed them up with a struggling Stevie Wonder (he was in a commercial slump and being strongly considered for contract termination)**. Wonder wrote and produced “It’s a Shame,” on the group and it became both a big hit and one of the era’s most important records, reviving his career, giving him a strong negotiating point with Motown which played a role in their renewing his contract and spring-boarding the change from a fine run of hits, on the order of the Marvelettes or Junior Walker, into an era-defining legend.
“We’ll Have It Made,” also written and produced by Stevie, was the followup to “It’s A Shame.” To my ears, it’s an even greater record–and a key precursor to the sounds he would pursue himself in the decade to come. But, because it didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor, it was the Spinners who became expendable at Motown. The label let them go, Atlantic picked them up. Soon they were paired with Thom Bell. The rest is seventies’ soul history.
If this had been more popular?
Like a lot of things that gleam out of the shadows–and a lot of things that will appear under this category–this is the sound of what might have been.
(**Sharp-eyed friend of the blog, Neal Umphred, rightly pointed out that Stevie was actually enjoying a nice run of hits. My bad for sloppy research. Wonder had actually let his own contract expire and was in negotiations with Motown concerning his future with the label. It all worked out and it’s fair to conclude that “It’s a Shame” played a role in giving Wonder a stronger position, which, of course, he ultimately exploited to the fullest. But I definitely should have been both clearer and more thorough.)